The Days of Man – the Bible on longevity

By Stephen Green

First Published in Christian Voice December 2015

Genesis 6:3 And the LORD said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years. (King James Version)

According to the Daily Telegraph, ‘the world’s first anti-ageing drug will be tested on humans next year in trials which could result in people being able to live healthily well into their 120s.

‘Scientists now believe it is possible to stop people growing old as quickly and consign diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s to history,’ the paper reported.

‘Although it might seem like science fiction, researchers have already proven that the diabetes drug metformin extends the life of animals, and the Food and Drug Administration in the US has now given the go-ahead for a trial to see if the same effects can be replicated in humans.

‘If successful it will mean that a person in their 70s would be as biologically healthy as a 50-year-old.’

A WILDERNESS CURSE

Moses (portrayed here by Charlton Heston) wrote about longevity

Moses (portrayed here by Charlton Heston) wrote about longevity

The Bible, in the verse with which we opened, says that our lifespan should be one hundred and twenty. The oft-quoted figure of ‘three-score years and ten’ appears in the ninetieth psalm. The first verse shows this was written by Moses, which places it in the travels of the wilderness:

Psalm 90:1 A Prayer of Moses the man of God. Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.

Moses recounts that God was angry with his people:

Psalm 90:7 For we are consumed by thine anger, and by thy wrath are we troubled. 8 Thou hast set our iniquities before thee, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance. 9 For all our days are passed away in thy wrath: we spend our years as a tale that is told.

That is the context for the key verse, which many have thought to specify man’s natural life-span:

Psalm 90:10 The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

NUMBER OUR DAYS

The psalm has some timeless wisdom from the throne of grace, including this famous verse:

Psalm 90:12 So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.

It continues with a heartfelt plea to God for mercy:

Psalm 90:13 Return, O LORD, how long? and let it repent thee concerning thy servants. 14 O satisfy us early with thy mercy; that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. 15 Make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil.

What had gone wrong to send Moses to his knees with such an appeal? The answer is that the children of Israel had rebelled against the Almighty. They had spurned and rejected his offer of the promised land. The people had sided with ten out of the twelve spies who said:

Numbers 13:28 Nevertheless the people be strong that dwell in the land, and the cities are walled, and very great: and moreover we saw the children of Anak there. 29 The Amalekites dwell in the land of the south: and the Hittites, and the Jebusites, and the Amorites, dwell in the mountains: and the Canaanites dwell by the sea, and by the coast of Jordan.

Only Caleb and Joshua had faith that God would empower them to take the land:

Numb 13:30 And Caleb stilled the people before Moses, and said, Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it.

AFRAID AND FAITHLESS

The spies return - with improbably large clusters of grapes in this stained glass window.

The spies return – with improbably large clusters of grapes in this stained glass window.

Despite Caleb’s passion, the ten spies remained afraid and faithless:

Numb 13:31 But the men that went up with him said, We be not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we. 32 And they brought up an evil report of the land which they had searched unto the children of Israel, saying, The land, through which we have gone to search it, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of a great stature. 33 And there we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, which come of the giants: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.

And their view prevailed. As a result, the Israelites were condemned to wander for forty years in the wilderness.  All the people who voted not to go in to Canaan died there. The event is used as an example to encourage obedience, as in psalm ninety-five:

Psalm 95:8 Harden not your heart, as in the provocation, and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness: 9 When your fathers tempted me, proved me, and saw my work. 10 Forty years long was I grieved with this generation, and said, It is a people that do err in their heart, and they have not known my ways: 11 Unto whom I sware in my wrath that they should not enter into my rest.

JUST AS STRONG AS I WAS

Despite Moses saying in psalm ninety that if anyone manages to attain eighty years, ‘yet is their strength labour and sorrow’, Caleb, one of the two faithful spies, was able to boast of his strength at the age of eighty-five:

Joshua 14:10 And now, behold, the LORD hath kept me alive, as he said, these forty and five years, even since the LORD spake this word unto Moses, while the children of Israel wandered in the wilderness: and now, lo, I am this day fourscore and five years old. 11 As yet I am as strong this day as I was in the day that Moses sent me: as my strength was then, even so is my strength now, for war, both to go out, and to come in.

Caleb was still going strong, using the tenacity and doggedness his name suggests, taking land, siring children, well into the book of Judges as the people of Israel advanced into the promised land. Joshua, the other man of God in that day, was still exhorting the Israelites to follow the Lord until the day of his death at a hundred and ten:

Joshua 24:28 So Joshua let the people depart, every man unto his inheritance. 29 And it came to pass after these things, that Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the LORD, died, being an hundred and ten years old.

WHY THEY LIVED SO LONG

When God set the days of man at one hundred and twenty years in response to their rebellion and lawlessness, it was before the flood and at a time when people were living to eight and nine hundred years.

A good part of the explanation for their longevity lies in the protective water-vapour canopy over the ante-diluvian earth. This would have repelled harmful ultra-violet radiation with massive beneficial effects on the deterioration rates of cells in the human body – or any body. There may have been more oxygen in the early atmosphere, which would also help. And of course their genetic make-up was far less corrupted than ours has become after hundreds of generations.

Immediately after the flood, people saw a rainbow for the first time. For there to be a rainbow you need sun and rain. Neither were present when the earth was covered with a vapour canopy.

The sun enabled Noah’s grapes to ripen but also exposed people to harmful radiation for the first time. This would explain why lifetimes decreased dramatically after the flood, down towards the one hundred and twenty years figure enjoyed by Moses. Lifespan did not reduce all at once, according to Genesis chapter eleven, but gradually, as if there were a genetic or hereditary component lasting after the flood, but being eventually extinguished.

UPPER BOUNDARY

Jeanne Calment at 120.

Jeanne Calment illustrating the ‘days of man’ at 120.

Lifespans were low in the middle ages, with sixty being quite venerable. Improvements in dietary understanding and medicine have improved longevity.  Today, living into one’s nineties is not at all unusual.  Nevertheless, one hundred and twenty is very old.  It seems to be regarded as a the upper boundary of life.

The maximum number of years any human is known to have lived in modern history is actually 122 years.  The record was set by Jeanne Calment who died in France in 1997. Interestingly, genetics played a part there as well. Her older brother François lived to the age of 97, her father to six days shy of 93, and her mother was 86 when she died.  Mme Calment was also said to be ‘immune to stress’.  An article could be written on that alone.

Scientists tell us that over our lifetime billions of cell divisions must occur to keep our bodies functioning correctly.  The more times cells divide the more problems grow.  The point arrives when cells can no longer repair the damage.

But they also say that ageing is not an inevitable part of life.  All cells contain a DNA blueprint which could in theory keep a body functioning correctly for ever. They point out that some marine creatures do not age, or grow weaker as time passes at all. Hydra, many molluscs and species of fish do not become weaker but just grow larger with age. Trees also just keep getting bigger, although there are variations. Alders seem to peg out in their sixties, outlived by ash, then oak and especially by yew, whereas aspen trunks can spring up indefinitely from their root system.

SLOW DOWN PATHOLOGY OF AGEING

Mammals, on the other hand, do age, and humans are no exception in the post-flood climate. But ageing annoys us. That is why breakthroughs in slowing down ageing are so exciting.

Prof Gordon Lithgow

Prof Gordon Lithgow

In the study reported by the Telegraph, ageing expert Prof Gordon Lithgow, of the Buck Institute for Research on Ageing in California, is one of the advisers. He said: “If you target an ageing process and you slow down ageing then you slow down all the diseases and pathology of ageing as well.

“That’s revolutionary,” he went on,.”That’s never happened before.

“I have been doing research into ageing for 25 years and the idea that we would be talking about a clinical trial in humans for an anti-ageing drug would have been thought inconceivable.

“But there is every reason to believe it’s possible. The future is taking the biology that we’ve now developed and applying it to humans.”

At the moment, the research seems centred around metformin, the world’s most widely used diabetes drug which costs just 10 cents a day. Metformin increases the number of oxygen molecules released into a cell, which appears to boost robustness and longevity.

CLINICAL TRIAL ON LONGEVITY

The Telegraph reported: ‘When Belgian researchers tested metformin on the tiny roundworm C. elegans the worms not only aged slower, but they also stayed healthier longer. Last year Cardiff University found anecdotal evidence that when patients with diabetes were given the drug metformin they lived longer than others without the condition, even though they should have died eight years earlier on average.

‘The new clinical trial called Targeting Aging with Metformin, or TAME, is scheduled to begin in the US next winter. Scientists from a range of institutions are currently raising funds and recruiting 3,000 70 to 80-year-olds who have, or are at risk of, cancer, heart disease and dementia.

‘A baby girl born today is now expected to live to an average age of 82.8 years and a boy to 78.8 years, according to the Office for National Statistics. But if the results seen in animals are reproduced in humans, lifespan could increase by nearly 50 per cent.

Taking lifespans from an average of eighty years up by fifty per cent would bring us to an average of one hundred and twenty. That would in a sense just be restoring our longevity to where the Bible appears to tell us we should be in God’s design.

SPIRITUAL CREATURES

The underlying assumption in what I have written so far and in the medical studies is that long earthly life is desirable. But we do need to bear in mind that our earthly existence is not all we have. Humans are spiritual creatures, destined for eternal fellowship with our heavenly Father. As the writer of Ecclesiastes puts it:

Eccl 3:21 Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?

Two years ago, three of my friends died in their fifties and sixties.  Two brothers died from cancer and a sister from the after-effects of a brain tumour. I prayed for them to be restored, and if I did not have enough faith, there were plenty praying with much more faith than me. But none of the three recovered.

Looking back, each one of these dear souls had accomplished something impressive for the Kingdom of God. They had each done a great work.

It also occurred to me that whenever we encounter death, someone is bound to say: ‘He / She is in a better place now.’

So if they are in a better place, why are we praying to keep them here? Why not simply accept that some people are called home earlier than others?

Inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Apostle Paul summed it up perfectly in his letter to the first Christians in Philippi:

Philippians 1:21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 But if I live in the flesh, this is the fruit of my labour: yet what I shall choose I wot not. 23 For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better: 24 Nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you. 25 And having this confidence, I know that I shall abide and continue with you all for your furtherance and joy of faith;

PURPOSE OF LIFE

Matt 25:19 After a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them. 20 And so he that had received five talents came and brought other five talents, saying, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me five talents: behold, I have gained beside them five talents more. 21 His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.

The Lord is teaching us in that parable that the sole purpose of a Christian’s life on earth should be to glorify God and to build his Kingdom here on earth. That is the only reason for wanting a long life.  It is also the only reason for praying for our ministry -whatever it is – to grow.

That is why the progress made by these scientists should be of interest to every Christian. But until their work bears fruit, indeed whether it does or not, surely our prayer should be to ask the Lord for productive length of days. This is a good thing to have.  When we pray this word from Proverbs, we shall see that a long and peaceful life results from obedience:

Proverbs 3:1 My son, forget not my law; but let thine heart keep my commandments: 2 For length of days, and long life, and peace, shall they add to thee.

There is really no point having a long life unless it is spent in obedience and productivity. It is not uncommon for men to retire from a job and to die within months. With nothing to do, the body and the mind conclude together that the point of living has gone.  We should never retire from any aspect of the Christian life.  God is a Creator.  If we are made in his image, so should we be, all our days.

TWO SIMPLE THINGS FOR LONGEVITY

Having prayed for productive length of days, there are two very simple things each one of us can do to show God our prayer for longevity is serious. After all, there is no point praying such a prayer and then not backing it up by our actions. You can spoil a good prayer with a bad confession.  (‘Lord bring Auntie Bessie to faith’ – ‘That miserable old dragon won’t get saved but it’s worth a shot.’)  You can also spoil it with contrary actions.

The first of the two simple things is to look after ourselves.  The second is to do with our attitude and approach to life.

The word in the Apostle Paul’s letter to Timothy about ‘bodily exercise’ has been taken out of context:

1Tim 4:8 For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come.

The dear Apostle, a man fit enough to walk 140 miles from Jerusalem to Damascus, is talking about priorities, just as we were above. The Greek word translated ‘little’ is ‘oligos’ from which we get ‘oligarchy – rule by a tiny number’.

Park Run could transform your fitness and add years to your life.

Taking part in the weekly Park Run could transform your fitness and add years to your life.

‘Oligos’ means little, but it does not mean ‘not at all’. Looking after our bodies through correct diet and exercise makes us fitter and more able to do the Lord’s work for longer.

There is no incompatibility between that objective and the objective of godliness. Indeed, they form part of the same objective, to draw closer to God and to build his Kingdom here on earth.

Personally, I’ve cut out all processed food and am gradually working towards a more healthy diet. I’m out running as often as I can, and I get in the gym.  Assuming you are even vaguely able-bodied, you could do a lot worse by turning up to your local Park Run. These 5km events (just over three miles in real units) are held all over the UK at 9am each Saturday morning. Everyone runs against the clock and your time improvements and health benefits week on week will amaze you.

HOLY DETERMINATION

Secondly is the matter of attitude. Now you know that God’s intention is for you to live to one hundred and twenty rather than to seventy, you can pray into that figure.

I’m just over half-way through my hundred and twenty and I am going for it. I feel fitter than ever, and I have the Caleb principle in mind. You’ll never hear me say anything like, ‘I’m not as young as I used to be’ or ‘at my age’. I’m not ‘slowing down’, I’m even more keen to preach the Gospel and give the information and targets you need to pray into what our leaders are doing.

You too can adopt an attitude, not just of setting your sights a lot higher, although that would be a good start, but of holy determination to go all the way. Many times, as the Apostle James tells us, we don’t receive because we just don’t ask.

Maybe the scientists will come up with their anti-ageing pills, or maybe we’ll just employ the knowledge we are being, frankly, bombarded with for healthy living (and I’ve done my bit of bombarding you in this article), the knowledge of scripture and our desire for holiness and obedience.

But let’s also have an attitude that God wants us to have a long and productive life and keep praying him to give us that for his Kingdom’s sake.

If we are called home early, that’s not a problem.  The bottom line is to do all we can in his Spirit for his Gospel in our time on his earth during as much of that hundred and twenty years as he will be gracious enough to give us.

Psalm 90:17 And let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.

 

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